A while back, a previous coworker named Ashley White came to attend a class I was teaching, and she asked me a very important question. She asked me why is it that when she does one-sided exercises, she feels it more on one side of the body than the other. She had expressed that when she works out the left side of her body, she hardly feels the work being done. I take it she’s not feeling the burn on that side, much less she is probably not feeling the resistance she is supposed to feel when doing unilateral exercises.
I was thinking about this, & through my own physical trials and tribulations with my own body through my own personal workouts, and years of training folks from all walks of life with injuries, designing customizable needs for others in strength, flexibility, body transformations, helping folks recover from old injuries and training clients in injury prevention techniques, building agility or endurance for energy, and the list goes on and on —-> I believe I have the answer. Unilateral work can be tricky if one does not know the correct muscles to engage before executing the exercise, plus the transfer of weight is just as important, not to mention engaging the correct form and alignment. You have to ask yourself, “Is the primary muscle the only muscle I’m isolating? Or are other secondary muscles I need to recruit.”
There are many ways to bring tension to the muscle in order to really “Feel It.” Ashley mentioned it’s her left side that she can’t feel while she performs an exercise on the left side (answer: it may be her transfer of weight and the other recruiting muscles she is not using in order to isolate that primary muscle as well as her tempo).
Generally speaking for anyone reading this, just know that the faster the speed of your workout, the lower the muscle tension you may or may not feel. What one should do to his/her repetition speed is to do a more controlled tempo style exercise so that one can increase the muscle tension. Plus, what also matters is where you place the weight of your body (your weight transfer placement). For example. if you’re working on “parallel bent over rows” or “closed grip bent over rows” on the bench on the left side of your body (i.e. all your weight should be on the left foot or on the left side of the body so that you feel the activation of the left Latissimus Dorsi aka Lat when holding the hand weight on the left hand while doing rows.
The faster you do your reps, it allows you to go heavier, but it reduces tension, so you’re trading feeling the burn on that muscle for power and speed. This is why many Olympic lifters who lift weights explosively have incomprehensible strength, but they don’t have physiques like bodybuilders. Their power is an in-the-moment fast lift of mindblowing lbs of heavy iron, & it’s only for powerlifting short bursts.
If you’re ever in doubt about how fast to do your repetitions for developing muscle definition, & in Ashley’s case needing to feel the muscle working when performing an exercise, I highly recommend a concentric of 2-3 seconds and eccentric of 3-4 seconds is a good rule of thumb (I teach how I workout 🏋🏼♀️ at the gym, plain & simple whether it’s through strength training, pilates, functional training, calisthenics, etc. It works & changes the body faster). This is a “controlled” or moderately slow rep. This two-point prescription is sufficient for a beginner (I recommend anyone to start here), but when one reaches the advanced level (longer counting points of tempo use with going heavier), it suits you to be more particular and dissect your reps even further, which furthers you to be able to feel the muscles you need to feel while performing an exercise. I never heard any of my students or private clients say, “I can’t feel it.” I think I’ve heard it vaguely, but when that happened, I immediately answered, “I’ll make you feel it,” and immediately went into correction and queueing mode, and fixed it. It was simple. I simply queued this person to hold the correct form and alignment, asked her to transfer her weight, and I reduced the pounds on the dumbbell she was holding (yup! She was over-lifting a hand-weight that did not yet suit her. The over-resistance of the weight was causing her to fall into incorrect form and alignment. Voila! She then said, “oh, now I feel it”). Hope this article helps not only Ashley, but anyone else having the same issue.
Author: Personal Trainer Rocio Ponce